Director Lone Scherfig discusses the making of her World War II film about filmmaking, Their Finest and what she’s learned from the actors she’s worked with.
With most of the young men away fighting, World War II meant women and older men suddenly found themselves getting opportunities they never could have during peace. Lone Scherfig’s new film, Their Finest, looks at such opportunities in the film industry, which was desperate to create morale-boosting propaganda. When Catrin (Gemma Arterton) attends an interview for what she assumes is a secretarial position, she discovers she’ll be writing the women’s dialogue (“slop”) for the next propaganda film about the successful evacuation in Dunkirk. Although she starts out timid and unsure, writing the film with her partner Buckley (Sam Claflin) while battling with an arrogant elderly actor (Bill Nighy) gives Catrin newfound confidence. The film is the story of her blossoming, her screwball comedy-esque relationship with Buckley, and the madness that goes into producing a war-time film.
Scherfig made her name first as a Dogme 95 director and then with character dramas, like An Education and The Riot Club. Their Finest is not only a huge ensemble film, but a period piece that needs to capture the essence of what filmmaking looks like and what the film-within-the-film looks like. She rises admirably to the technical challenge. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, where the film screened in the prestigious Spotlight section, I talked to Scherfig about this challenge, how she approaches directing actors, and what actors have taught her over the years.
7R: How did you think about developing the aesthetic for the film? You have different treatments for the real life scenes, the movie-within-the-movie, the historic footage, etc. How did you think about what each of those looks should be?
LS: That technical challenge was something I actually really enjoyed. I ended up coming up with a diagram, a graphic model description, of how to work with something authentic, like the stock footage or archival footage, and something very stylized, which is The Nancy Starling, the film-within-the-film, and everything that’s between that. It’s about coming up with a graphic concept that makes all those elements work together.
The vertical arc is coming from black-and-white into colour. There is the black and white footage that we have made or have found. And then you have the technicolor extreme saturated colours. Then, I placed all the different elements in the story within that and took it to the director of photography, the costume designer, the art department. It’s the first time I’ve done it like, “here is the recipe for this film”, except when I did Dogme 95, which also has a very specific set of rules.
I didn’t want the director to be visible. I wanted people to move in and out of different types of filmmaking. The period footage would be shot differently than the way we use the camera today. As an audience member, you actually know so many different elements of the film language and read films with a very sophisticated mind.I didn’t want the director to be visible.Click To Tweet
In terms of film language, the film has a big vocabulary, the full orchestra. For example, at the end of the documentary film about the pilot, there’s a little iris that goes through a circle around his face. That’s one sort of adjective, if you will, from the film language. I totally loved to be able to play the full orchestra of everything I’ve done throughout the years and make it work to tell one story.
7R: How did you think about sound?
LS: Older things are mono and the way optical sound was. The score of the film-within-the-film is a really full symphony film orchestra, but it’s still played as if it comes out of really bad speakers.The film-within-the-film is shot in the narrow, academy format; Their Finest is a cinemascope film.Click To Tweet
7R: When you’re shooting the film, the lighting and framing seems very specific. You know when it’s not real, when it’s a film-within-the-film.
LS: The film-within-the-film is shot in the narrow, academy format, whereas Their Finest is a cinemascope film. It’s the format. It’s the conversation and the way the actors are standing. They cut much less, much fewer closeups. It’s the acting style. It’s all those elements, and we try to not do something that they couldn’t have done then or wouldn’t have done then. It was cast with young actors who can hit that note of the time: for the time, it was very naturalistic acting, but the accent is very clipped. They talk very fast like they did in Brief Encounter later on, and some of those films.
7R: So many of the scenes in the film have so many actors, so many characters in them. That’s such a big technical challenge. How do you deal with the blocking of those scenes?
LS: Suso Cecchi d’Amico, the Italian scriptwriter, she wrote scripts with all the best post-war directors in Italy. I was at a masterclass with her, and I asked her if, as a writer, there is something you should not write because no director gets it right. She said, “Yes, don’t write scenes with too many people, because no director can do that.” It really is hard.Suso Cecchi d'Amico: 'Don’t write scenes with too many people, because no director can do that.'Click To Tweet
You have to turn it into small scenes, and then shoot the bigger scenes as if it’s a combination of smaller moments. And then you have to work really fast because you don’t get time to do proper coverage. So you have to know what you’re going to shoot. The film grammar is really important to know: the angles so you can get the audience to understand who’s looking at whom and who’s listening to whom so the geography and the orientation is uncomplicated to people.
I get a lot of help from the actors. They know their parts quite well so there are scenes where it’s not in the script what they’re doing, but they’ll still be around and do something. I would just ask the writers to give me a bank of things that they could talk about, even if they’re in the background. I knew that we had to cast actors who were willing to improvise, who liked it and enjoyed it, who didn’t think of it as a problem but as a way to elaborate.I knew that we had to cast actors who were willing to improvise, who liked it and enjoyed it.Click To Tweet
I love to play with the actors. These scenes where they’re singing, each one of them would react differently to that song and react according to character without getting that much direction from me. I love when the actors come with things that they think belong in the film that we’ve never even discussed, and they are right. It’s such a joy.I love when actors come with things they think belong in the film that we’ve never even discussed.Click To Tweet
7R: Is there an example of that?
LS: Jake Lacy, the American in the film who plays the blonde pilot who is headhunted to be a film hero but really longs to be back up in the sky. He came up with so many amusing details. His performance is far more varied and witty than if you read the script. He loved Bill Nighy already. He was a big fan before they even met. I think he really had a fantastic time. He’d never been to Europe. It was the first time he was in Europe, and then he’s dumped right in the middle of London two days before he started on the film. It was very fun to see him experience all that.
He comes from television and sitcoms in front of a live audience, which is tough. You really learn what works and what doesn’t work. He’s taught me a lot about comedic timing.Jake Lacy taught me a lot about comedic timing.Click To Tweet
7R: A lot of the actors in the film have that experience with an audience, often with theatre.
LS: Some people say that’s the big difference between the British actors and American actors. There are many reasons, but one is that [British actors] go in and out of the theatre, which is less common here. But it’s also that they generally find things outside of themselves rather than from the inside. It’s less of a psychological process and more of a technical process.
One of the things you learn at the theatre is timing. And also, they trust the writing a lot because they come from a dramatic tradition where they have extremely good dramatic writers. They’ve done those in theatre school. If there’s a line they don’t understand or don’t like, they think it’s their fault, and they keep practicing and going back, and “why don’t I get this?” Sometimes, it’s just not good. They are right.If there’s a line they don’t understand or don’t like, they think it’s their fault, and they keep practicing.Click To Tweet
In Denmark, the actors would come up and ask to change the line because they don’t get it or it doesn’t make sense or they don’t like the writing. It doesn’t taste good. That would not happen in England. They’re very humble and very disciplined. But it’s still a very respected art form in England, and you’ll see actors being invited to royal weddings and that kind of thing. They are more humble to writers than to any other person on the crew. That’s a beautiful thing.
7R: Do you direct scenes with many many characters differently from how you work on scenes with just a couple of characters?
LS: I hear myself coming over and apologizing more. I feel I neglect them because you just have less time. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. It’s just the difficult actors who get more detailed directions or more information. But you actually have to be there for everyone who needs you. But there are actors who don’t need much direction, whose first instinct is very good. Sometimes, directing is to not say anything.
I had an incident with Helen McRory, who plays Sophie in the film.
7R: She is so amazing.
LS: She is so amazing. I had tested her for something else years back. So I hadn’t met her before we shot this because I knew she was great. She wasn’t tested. She did something, and I thought it was spot on. I really did not want any change in her performance. But they expect you to come up to them between each take and say something.I really did not want any change in her performance. But they expect you to come up to them between each take and say something.Click To Tweet
And then I came up to her and said, “Helen, I have nothing good to say to you.” What I meant was “I have nothing useful to say to you.” But she went, “Oh thank you, you have nothing good to say to me.” And we laughed. The information was you did everything I had hoped for and more so I’m not going to give you directions because I don’t want to ruin anything. That does happen. It happens more, the more experienced the actors are.I try to quickly learn how to get any actor to reach the best possible performance.Click To Tweet
I direct them all very differently. Even in The Riot Club, each actor got very different directions. I try to quickly learn how to get any actor to reach the best possible performance so they don’t go home thinking, “I could have done a much better job.”
I learned a lot from Peter Sarsgaard, strangely, because I love the British actors so much and the way they work, and he’s American. He’s a real method actor. But his depth and his secrets and his variation and his courage, never repeating himself: that is really, really magic to watch. With him, too, I thought maybe the best thing I could do was to just be a mirror and come back and tell him if what he thinks he projects is what you actually see on camera.
7R: What about the actors on this film?
LS: I know Sam Claflin, of course, because he was already in The Riot Club. It was great to do something very, very different. The two characters are so different. In The Riot Club, he played much younger than he is. And here he plays much older. And Sam himself is none of those [characters].
Gemma, I’ve been a fan of for many, many years. She’s been asked to do different parts in other films that I’ve done and for different reasons, it hasn’t happened or she hasn’t been available.As experienced as Bill Nighy is, he really listens and appreciates if you give him ideas.Click To Tweet
Bill Nighy, I had a lot of respect for him. As experienced as he is, he really listens and appreciates if you give him ideas. I would find things to ask him to do right before the shoot, prepare the day before. “Tomorrow, I’m going to give him a pair of sunglasses and see what he would like to…Do you think your character would have a pair of sunglasses?” And he’d look at them and think, “Yeah, that would work for me.”
I would like to work with him again very much. We should have collaborated 20 years ago. I wish I’d met him years ago. I’m sure there are many directors who feel that way with him. He’s really easy to work with.
I can’t remember ever having laughed so much with anyone at work — or at anyone. I can hear the takes where I hear myself later on the take laughing before the slate has even… because I can see in his eyes what he plans to do in the next take. Of course, it’s easier when I get older, because I’m less nervous about whether it’s going to be a film or not. I can enjoy it more because I’m less worried than when I was younger.